Synch or Swim

I spent Sunday afternoon at the Bozeman Swim Center for a story on the Stingrays, a local synchronized swimming team. They were hosting their water show, a chance for people in the community to see what they can do.

Synchro, as the sport is called by insiders, is not often seen in Montana. There are only two teams in the state, the team’s president Michele Corriel said, and most of their competitions are in distant cities like Denver and Portland.

Girls–and not boys, according to national rules–between the ages of 6 and 19 are welcome to the Stingrays. Membership comes mostly from word of mouth. Someone sees them practicing at the pool and asks for more details, and before they know it they’ve spent 10 years in synchro.

That’s what happened to Sonjve Ryen, 18, whose mother got her involved when she was in third grade. Over time, Ryen advanced through the ranks and now she’s set to join the varsity synchro team at Wheaton College this fall.

Not much for talking about the sport, especially after an arduous seven person team exhibition, dripping wet and out of breah, Ryen said only that synchro is a sport that requires a lot of endurance and dedication. That’s something she and her teammates have down pat. Immediately after the show, even before the crowd had left the poolside, all the girls were back in the water practicing a few jumps and throws they didn’t get perfect during the routine.

It’s a tired metaphor but a true one in this case. There’s a lot more going on under the surface in synchro. Even the simplest maneuvers, like appearing to sit in the water, require frantic leg movements beneath the blue chlorinated water. All the while, the girls must make it look effortless.

That’s because synchronized swimming well executed must maintain a balance between art and athletics. In 1907, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman caused a sensation when she performed underwater ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome. Since then, synchro became more and more popular as an elegant form of entertainment. Celebrity swimmer Esther Williams starred in dozens of films in which big musical numbers were accompanied by elaborate synchronized swimming routines (for a more modern, slightly sarcastic, example, take a look at Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1).

It wasn’t until later in the century that synchro became more of a “sport.” It was first demonstrated at the Olympics in the 1950s by American and Canadian teams. International competitions followed, and eventually it was adopted as an Olympic sport in 1984.

And as far as sports go, it’s hard work. Imagine swimming upside down in the water for up to two minutes at a time, moving your legs in elaborately choreographed patterns to techno-remixes of classical tracks. All this happens within a foot or two of another swimmer who is, hopefully, in sync with you and will not collide with you in the water.

And then, when you finally get your head above water again, you don’t even get the satisfaction of violently sucking in breath, because the judges are looking for composure. Your hair is shellacked into place with flavorless gelatin, and you must smile, always, always smile.

Routines take months to plan and choreograph–the routine performed by the most advanced team at Sunday’s competition took eight months to get right, Stingray parent Megan Smith said.

“They work all year for maybe just 12 minutes of performing,” she said.


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